There is no one like Eileen Gu. The 18-year-old American-born Olympic skier representing her mother’s birth country of China, who won gold in freestyle skiing big air last week and silver in slopestyle on Tuesday, and will seek a third medal in the halfpipe on Friday, has lived a singular life. The details of this life–and the mysteries–can be arranged almost by rote to form a number of particular narratives. The daughter of a Chinese immigrant and single mother, she’s an underdog American success story. Born and raised in a wealthy San Francisco enclave with all the trappings afforded to the American elite, she ungratefully rejected her home country to compete for China. She’s a paragon of women’s empowerment, hoping to inspire women in China to be fearless. She’s an opportunist, capitalizing on China’s vast and growing market potential. She’s a striver, just getting her bag in this capitalist world. She’s a witting or unwitting pawn for the soft-power diplomacy of a repressive regime. She’s a girlboss, jet-setting all over the world and spending her birthday on a yacht in Dubai. She’s a kid who deferred her Stanford admission and is just figuring out her life.
No matter which way you slice it, Gu’s experience is one-of-a-kind. She is not only one of the world’s top skiers, but also a model, pianist, and star student, boasting dozens of lucrative endorsement deals worth tens of millions of dollars with global luxury brands like Cadillac, Louis Vuitton, and Victoria’s Secret. Her backstory is all the more interesting for the blanks she won’t fill in, including the identity of her white father, a topic she will not address; the nature of her mother’s business, which has been described in media reports as venture capital and China-focused investment; and, crucially, the status of her citizenship. China doesn’t allow dual citizenship, but there is no record of Gu giving up her American passport, and she refuses to speak to this point, leading to widespread speculation that the Chinese government made an exception for her. As a result of all this, Gu has spent weeks fielding–if not answering–questions about her identity, background, and values.
“I compete for myself, and I’m the one who did the work,” Gu said after winning gold last week. “I’m the one who put in the hours, and there were no cameras in the gym when I worked eight to 10 hours of fashion work and then went to the gym afterwards. There were no cameras when I was hiking up before the lifts closed at 4:00 p.m. to get another hit in. There were no cameras when I was running half marathons every week over the entire summer. So I think those are the hours that I put in, and so in that sense, I was doing it for myself.”
Here’s another narrative: Eileen Gu is above all else a rugged individualist who enjoys massive privilege but chafes at any mention of it, while nonetheless championing the belief that all it takes to achieve one’s dream is hard work. Sound familiar? It’s a funny thing: The athlete at the Winter Olympics doing the most to spread the true message of America is the supposed traitor competing for China.
“I’m an 18-year-old girl out here living my best life. Like, I’m having a great time,” she said in the same press conference. “It doesn’t matter if other people are happy or not because I feel as though I’m doing my best, enjoying the entire process and using my voice to create as much positive change as I can for the voices who will listen to me in an area that is personal and relevant to myself.” As she’s said in the past, “If I can help to inspire one young girl to break a boundary, my wishes will have come true.”
While this vague, almost aggressively twee position may not satisfy many people, the way it plays out in practice is instructive. Gu has said she only chooses to work with brands that “inspire positive social change,” as if there exists even one corporation that prizes anything over profit. She went out of her way, in fact, to emphasize her belief in the benevolent power of free, private enterprise: “I feel grateful for having the freedom to choose the brands that I work with and I’m also grateful for their faith in me,” adding that she’s careful to align with brands that are “on the same moral level” she is. Famous people and brands getting together to sell the act of selling stuff as activism? I know I’ve heard about that before somewhere!
Gu has gestured at this positive change she hopes to create, which includes “uniting people, promoting common understanding, creating communication, and forging friendships between nations.” And she is succeeding in bridging the gap between two countries and cultures, mostly by demonstrating that the gap is more of an illusion. When Gu was giving her monologue about who wasn’t in the gym with her while she was forging herself into an elite athlete, she might as well have been reciting lines from a Nike commercial. What better way to remind us how closely aligned the global economic interests of China and the United States actually are?
Much has been made of Gu’s popularity in China. She’s fluent in the language, a good student, and she’s outspoken about her pride in representing China. As Bryce Whitwam, a professor of marketing at NYU in Shanghai, told Reuters, “Gu ticks multiple boxes in China thanks to her image as a model student and pride in her decision to compete for the country of her mother’s birth.” Putting aside the always hilarious fact that there’s such a thing as “professor of marketing,” a country with a sports culture that prizes patriotism, national piety, and tokens of educational achievement isn’t exactly exotic.
Neither is Gu’s insistence that sports not be politicized.
“My mission is to use sport as a force for unity, to use it as a form to foster interconnection between countries and not use it as a divisive force,” she said, using phrases that should in theory should be music to roughly half of American ears. “So that benefits everyone, and if you disagree with that, I feel like it’s someone else’s problem.” Asserting an empty claim about what counts as politics in one breath and then preempting any potential criticism of that claim as “someone else’s problem” in the next is as American as it gets.
Gu is a huge star in China, thanks in part to her relatability. But her careful insistence that she is just like anybody else and a convention-defying consummate individual doesn’t always pass muster there, either. Last week, an Instagram user commented on one of her posts, writing, “Why can you use Instagram and millions of Chinese people from mainland cannot?” The commenter went on to ask why Gu received “special treatment” compared with other Chinese citizens, who are not able to legally access Western social media companies. “That’s not fair, can you speak up for those millions of Chinese who don’t have internet freedom,” the user wrote. In the now-deleted exchange, Gu wrote, “Anyone can download a VPN,” referring to technology that allows users to cross digital borders. “It’s literally free on the App Store.” VPNs can be difficult to access in China and authorities have punished those who use it to subvert state-controlled internet filters. Her flip response, offering an individual solution to a structural barrier, did not go unnoticed.
Though Gu has proven herself to be an able and committed spokeswoman for an enduring version of liberty predicated on individual rights and free enterprise, Western media has struggled with how to present her story. The simple-minded jingoism of American right-wing media aside, reporters and columnists from just about every news outlet have taken glancing swings at stories that could all well be titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Eileen Gu.” These efforts struggle to decide if Gu is a pawn for China or a shrewd businesswoman, a harbinger of a geopolitical watershed moment or just a girl who is really good at skiing. The pieces that cast her as a young woman letting herself be used to prop up China’s international image are missing the point. If she’s a propagandist for anything, it’s for the untempered individuality and belief in the power of the free market of traditional American liberalism.
Those that take her at face value, validating her desire to be seen as something separate and apart from any existing framework, fall into a different sort of trap.
“As a transcendent talent, she is a citizen of celebrity. Her blend of interests and identities create a singular and growing icon. In a time in which it seems like society is trying to whittle us down to easy definitions, Gu is Gu. It’s refreshing to see an intersectional human being so comfortably at odds with the moment,” wrote one Washington Post columnist who does not understand what intersectionality is.
“I know I have a good heart and I know my reasons for making the decisions I do are based on a greater common interest and something that I feel like is for the greater good,” Gu said last week, without elaborating on that greater good or how her success will translate into it. She continued:
So if other people don’t really believe that’s where I’m coming from, that just reflects they don’t have the empathy to empathize with a good heart, perhaps because they don’t share the same kind of morals that I do. And in that sense, I’m not going to waste my time trying to placate people who are one, uneducated, and two, probably never going to experience the kind of joy and gratitude and just love that I have the great fortune to experience on a daily basis. If people don’t believe me and if people don’t like me, that’s their loss. They’re never going to win the Olympics.
It’s another familiar turn. For wealthy, accomplished Americans like Gu, pushing some kind of idly aggrieved line about how happy they are for themselves and and how sad they are for their haters, who are also losers, is simply the done thing. Gu has made herself clear: She will pursue her own interests unapologetically, blazing her own path on and off the slopes, with little regard for the circumstances of her success, while preaching about hard work and empathy.
That’s the American way.